The Evolution of the Pennsylvania Wilds Effort – A Timeline
One hundred years of conservation and stewardship restore PA’s once logged-over forests into one of the world’s most valuable hardwood forests; see the region’s fish and wildlife rebound; and create the opportunity for north central PA to become a premier outdoor recreation destination.
Through word of mouth, thousands of visitors are coming to elk country to experience PA’s rebounding elk herd, but communities are ill-equipped to handle it, creating a stressful situation. With support from the Tom Ridge Administration, North Central PA Regional Planning & Development Commission, Lumber Heritage Region, the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the PA Game Commission contract with Fermata Inc. to develop a plan for elk watching and nature tourism in the Elk Range.
The Plan for Elk Watching and Nature Tourism in North Central Pennsylvania is released; it focuses on visitor management.
After visiting the region, the then-new Gov. Ed Rendell builds on the elk nature plan by launching the Pennsylvania Wilds Initiative to coordinate the efforts of various state agencies as well as local stakeholders to help grow the region’s nature tourism industry by marrying conservation and economic development. Studies show the 12 ½-county region is home to some of the best opportunities for outdoor recreation and wilderness adventure in the eastern US, but is relatively unknown, even among Pennsylvanians. An important objective of the Initiative is to brand the Pennsylvania Wilds region as a distinct entity and world class destination for outdoor recreation experiences, thus attracting tourists, creating jobs, and helping sustain communities. A new partnership between PA DCNR and PA DCED begins around the Wilds work.
State and local partners hold a branding summit to flesh out the Pennsylvania Wilds brand, which eventually leads to the Declaration of Principles for the Pennsylvania Wilds.
PA Wilds Regional Marketing Corporation is founded, bringing together the region’s eight tourist promotion agencies (TPAs). The Corporation is established through a regional marketing grant from DCED’s Pennsylvania Tourism Office, and matched with local contributions from the participating TPAs. The Corps’ goal is to establish a strong coalition of public and private partners with the goal of branding the Pennsylvania Wilds as the premier destination for outdoor experiences in the eastern United States. Zeitgeist Consulting develops a five-year Organization and Marketing Plan for the Pennsylvania Wilds region. The plan outlines strategies to increase hotel occupancy and grow outdoor tourism consistent with the stewardship of the public lands and the character of its communities.
PA DCNR releases Outdoor Recreation in the 21st Century: The Pennsylvania Wilds, which looks at emerging recreation trends and assessed existing recreational assets in the region.
The PA Wilds Planning Team is formed through a groundbreaking Intergovernmental Cooperative Agreement, the largest geographically of its kind in PA. This binds the 12 counties of the region together around the Wilds work and creates a way for other local stakeholder organizations to have a voice in the Initiative. The Planning Team meets monthly to share information, to discuss potential impacts of the Initiative and to undertake activities collectively to assist communities in capitalizing on the Initiative’s economic potential without spoiling the region’s rural character and charm.
PA DCNR releases A Recreation Plan for the State Parks and State Forests in the Pennsylvania Wilds, which sets a course for the department’s investments in the Pennsylvania Wilds based on current recreation trends. Upgrades to trails, signage, sewer systems and other infrastructure begin at DCNR facilities in the region, many of which have not seen this kind of attention before. The detailed strategy also helps pave the way for the building of destination facilities such as the Elk Country Visitor Center, Nature Inn at Bald Eagle, Wildlife Watching Center at Sinnemahoning, and Kinzua Bridge State Park Skywalk.
DCNR uses the Pennsylvania Wilds as a model to launch its Conservation Landscape program, leading to six other Conservation Landscapes where similar partnership work is established.
PA Wilds Planning Team publishes PA Wilds Planning Study, a guiding document for its work.
The Pennsylvania Wilds officially becomes one of the state’s 11 tourism regions after tourism legislation is signed into law in Harrisburg.
With a state grant to the Lumber Heritage Region and support from PA Wilds Planning Team members, a study is undertaken and disseminated showing the growth potential for the region’s artisan industry. This gives rise to the PA Wilds Artisan Development Initiative and the Proudly Made in the Pennsylvania Wilds brand.
PA Wilds Planning Team releases the Pennsylvania Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship, a voluntary resource for communities that want to protect or enhance their community character as they grow. The Design Guide competes with projects from PA’s major cities and wins a Planning Excellence Award from the state chapter of the American Planning Association.
The PA Wilds Initiative earns a Phoenix Award from the Society of American Travel Writers who state: “No initiative exists in the country on this scale and level of strategic thinking.”
The regionwide PA Wilds Conference, Natural Assets, Natural Opportunities: Planning, Protecting and Investing in Rural Pennsylvania, is held in Williamsport, to bring all stakeholders together to heighten regional identity and vision and discuss the goals of the Initiative. Nationally recognized speakers Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute and Ted Eubanks of Fermata, Inc. made keynote remarks.
The PA Wilds Planning Team holds its first community leadership training, “Balancing Nature & Commerce Workshop,” to assist community groups looking to advance nature and heritage tourism projects in their areas. The workshop included seven community “vision-to-action” teams and was held at the Pure Carbon Lodge outside St. Marys, PA.
The marketing Corp launches the regional visitor site PAWilds.com. The PA Wilds Planning Team holds its first “Progress Briefing” for County Commissioners in St Marys.
The PA Wilds Planning Team establishes a Business Development Task Force which prepares a white paper calling for the creation of a PA Wilds Small Business Ombudsman position, the first full-time staff position dedicated to the Initiative. Its focus is to help the private sector leverage the Initiative to start or grow businesses and create jobs. An Outreach Specialist position is also created and establishes outreach program for PA Wilds Design Guide that included signage grant programs for community gateways and businesses in the region. The outreach position was in place for a year before funding issues led to combining some outreach functions into the work of the ombudsman.
The ombudsman launches www.pawildsresources.org to help businesses and communities understand the big picture strategy behind the Wilds effort and how they can tie in, and the ombudsman also publishes the first PA Wilds e-newsletter. These mark the first of several ‘global messaging’ efforts by the ombudsman and the PA Wilds Planning Team’s Outreach Committee, to help explain the work to the public and create grassroots support.
The PA Wilds Planning Team holds its first regional Trails Workshop and its second annual Update Briefing both in DuBois.
DCNR commissioned a program evaluation for the PA Wilds Initiative by the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning as well as an economic assessment by Econsult and the Wharton GeoSpatial Initiative of the impact of the commonwealth’s investment in the PA Wilds. Both reports are available online at www.dcnr.state.pa.us/cli.
“PA Wilds: Making An Impact” report is released just as the Corbett administration takes charge. The report outlines the comprehensive nature of the work and discusses work of key partner groups. Ombudsman helps write and compile the report on behalf of the PA Wilds Planning Team.
Elk Country Visitor Center, a major DCNR investment in the region, opens its doors in partnership with the Keystone Elk Country Alliance. Within five years visitation grows from 80,000 to more than 400,000 annually. This same year, a second significant regional investment, the eco-friendly Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park comes on line.
PA Wilds Planning Team holds its second regional Trails Workshop, ‘Cashing in on Geocaching’ at the Emporium Country Club and its third Annual Update Briefing at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. The annual “Champion of the Pennsylvania Wilds” awards program makes its debut will eleven individuals and/or organizations being recognized.
The ombudsman releases a report showing the results of her work, which shows in the first two years: 49 presentations reached 850 people; interactions with 239 businesses created more than 100 jobs; and 230 referrals were made to the region’s service provider network. State and federal funders see this regional resource as a model and continue to support the work with additional grant funding.
Ombudsman releases “What is the PA Wilds Initiative?” video on YouTube, which captures the spirit and results of the initiative. The video is shared around the region, quickly getting over 4,000 views.
Major state cuts in regional marketing occur, zeroing out Marketing Corps’ budget.
The 4th Annual Briefing Luncheon was held at the St. Marys Country Club. Cherly Hargrove, an expert in cultural heritage tourism and marketing, made the keynote speech, “Pennsylvania Wilds: People, Places and Perspective.” Seventeen PA Wilds Champions were recognized.
The Planning Team received funding from the National Park Service’s Preserve American Program to fund the good building designs for several development projects around the region to be used as case studies for the PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Protection.
The Tom Corbett administration bestows a Governor’s Award for Local Government Excellence to the PA Wilds Planning Team.
The Planning Team holds its second community leadership training, Connecting Nature, Economy and Character in the PA Wilds and nine community teams from around the region participated.
The PA Wilds group held the 5th Annual Dinner at the Red Fern in St. Marys, PA, where 14 PA Wilds Champions were recognized.
The PA Wilds Planning Team provided funding for 13 communities to get new gateway welcome signage that included the PA Wilds logo.
The ombudsman starts writing business features regularly about the Pennsylvania Wilds for Keystone Edge, an online magazine that shares content with papers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The 6th Annual Dinner was held at the Red Fern in St. Mary, PA. Large PA Wilds logo window clings were presented to each county, and 13 PA Wilds Champions were recognized.
With support from PA DCNR and PA DCED, the ombudsman founded PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc., a regional non-profit, creating a permanent home for the PA Wilds Artisan Trail, PA Wilds licensing activities new youth entrepreneurship programming and other business developments components of the work.
The 7th Annual Dinner was held at the Red Fern in St. Marys, PA. Beautiful framed PA Wilds maps printed by a PA Wilds artisan were presented to each county, and 10 PA Wilds Champions were recognized. The “Celebrating Our Partners” video was shown. View at http://youtu.be/iXwECKNnp4U.
The Pennsylvania Wilds has evolved at such a pace that its existing framework is showing signs of stress and a strategy for long term sustainability. Partners representing planning, marketing and business development interests hold retreat to discuss how to better move forward collectively. Partners reaffirm their commitment to each other and the work and decide to use the name the PA Wilds Team (versus the PA Wilds Planning Team) to more clearly recognize the diverse partner base for the effort. The PA Wilds Planning Team’s bi-monthly meetings remain the de-facto meeting place for the collective conversation by the Team while partners discuss needed next steps for better integration.
The PA Wilds Center held its 8th Annual Dinner at the Red Fern in St. Marys, PA. A new video “Celebrating Our Brand” was shown. VIEW HERE. Etched stone markers customized for each county and made by a PA Wilds Artisan were presented to each county and eleven organizations or individuals were recognized as PA Wilds Champions. Several PA Wilds juried artisans were on site to display and sell their “Proudly Made in the PA Wilds” products.
The PA Wilds Licensing Program officially launches. Thanks to a partnership with DCED, royalties from the sale of branded products will stay in the region to support the PA Wilds effort. PA Wilds brand standards book is published.
Core partners from the PA Wilds Planning Team, PA Wilds Marketing Corp and PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship held a retreat at Sinnemahoning State Park in August to identify major questions that need resolved to set the Wilds work up for long-term sustainability. The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship was identified by partners to be the lead organization in the Conservation Landscape.
The PA Wilds Artisan Trail went through a strategic planning process to reposition it for long-term sustainability and greater business participation. The program was rebranded as The Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania and opened to many new kinds of businesses that are key to place-based tourism development. The new framework immediately attracted new investment into the program.
The PA Wilds Center entered into a public-private partnership with PA DCNR to operate the gift shop at the new visitor center opening at Kinzua Bridge State Park. The gift shop was named the PA Wilds Conservation Shop and began focusing on selling locally made or value-added products from The Wilds Cooperative. In its first three months of operation, more $50,000 was invested in inventory from local producers for resale at the gift shop. The store had high mission impact, helping improve the visitor experience, develop the region’s brand, grow small businesses and build a sustainable revenue stream for the Wilds work. The Center looked to expand with an online store and other locations.
PA Wilds Planning Team, PA Wilds Marketing Corp and PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship hired a facilitator to help them integrate under one organizational umbrella, the PA Wilds Center. This led to a new organizational structure, including establishing the PA Wilds Planning Team and a new PA Wilds Marketing Team as core constructs inside the nonprofit. Members of the Planning Team and Marketing Corp joined the Center’s Board of Directors.
The Appalachian Regional Commission invested in the PA Wilds Center through the POWER federal Initiative, one of the first awards in Pennsylvania. The three-year grant allowed the nonprofit to expand its Conservation Shops, grow The Wilds Cooperative and reboot regional marketing and build a sustainable framework around it. As part of its sustainability plan, the Center’s Board of Directors dedicated a portion of gift shop profits to support regional marketing, an activity that has been unfunded for years.
The PA Wilds Center expanded capacity, adding staff to oversee its many programs and services for communities which include The Wilds Cooperative, PA Wilds Licensing, PA Wilds Mini Grants, PA Wilds Design Guide, Regional Marketing & Public Relations, PA Wilds Conservation Shops, Youth Outreach & Entrepreneurship and PA Wilds Champion Awards. Increased capacity included adding staff on the eastern side of the region for better coverage there.
The PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship 2nd Edition was released at the PA Wilds Annual Awards Dinner in DuBois, along with a video about the Design Guide. The new edition included many case studies of great design from around the region.